LEED-ND Series: Determining Gaps in the Rating System

22 Jul

Around 2006 most of us were doing the same thing…no, not Borat impressions and wearing skinny jeans…we were getting LEED accredited. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) introduced the LEED rating system in 2000 and with the boom of construction came a boom in the popularity of energy-efficient buildings. Professionals, young and old, in every architecture firm were required to pass the exam – it was expected. In 2008 the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) was established and shortly following were LEED AP specialities that include Building Design + Construction, Operations + Maintenance, Interior Design + Construction, Homes, and Neighborhood Development. These were introduced continuous with the crash and it can be argued that the LEED Rating Systems still haven’t recovered. LEED certification costs developers money, and in the “new economy” every penny counts. With the expansion of specialties, has the LEED rating system been spread too thin? Which rating system should we use and which one has enough marketing power to be worth the cost?

One of the last LEED specialities introduced was LEED for Neighborhood Development, around the same time I entered graduate school in 2009. I was interested to see if the design framework that had become so popular with buildings could translate to urban design. Energy efficiency in buildings was an easier sell and more understandable than how the urban form contributed to energy savings and health.

What does a LEED ND project look like? Stapleton in Denver, CO is attempting to achieve certification. (Image courtesy of Planetizen)

LEED ND is quite innovative in its own right and is the first time that urban design principles have been translated into quantitative standards. This excited me because principles and guidelines that focused on placemaking and livability were often overlooked in preference of the value engineering of a project, or a misunderstanding of the demands of the market. We’re over budget? Cut out some trees! What disturbs me even more is the constant argument by developers that they are only providing what the market wants and that investment in placemaking won’t sell their homes quicker than any other suburban development. The truth of this argument is that consumers can only purchase products that they’re offered. With new urban neighborhoods few and far between compared to the typical development types you see on the edge of our cities, they are often priced out of the majority of homebuyers’ budgets. Supply and demand wins out and the accuracy of “what sells” in America isn’t realistically represented by developers or the banks they borrow money from.

Because of this and other reasons, even the most well-intentioned plans and designs are often not implemented, despite best intentions. USGBC was the first to attempt to quantify the ultimate end-result that urban designers had been trying to achieve for decades. There was a lot at stake – and a lot to gain.

The LEED ND requirements cover a breadth of space and depend greatly on the project’s context: street connectivity, transportation systems, overall location, etc. Which means, unlike any other LEED rating system, a project’s certification is not-self contained but depends on surrounding factors. When taken at face value this means that it could be harder to achieve LEED ND certification than the LEED framework we studied in 2006.

LEED ND was written in part by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and because of this a significant portion of development that would possibly apply for certification, would also identify as New Urbanism. I was interested to see at the nascent of the framework how the most recent New Urbanism developments stacked up to it. The economic downtown was a perfect time to critique the LEED ND framework. After all, it hadn’t really been put to the test so if there were certain gaps between the rating system and what had been most recently built on the ground, they could be addressed. This would help ensure that LEED ND was achievable, and therefore wasn’t put at risk for becoming irrelevant. The general belief that LEED-ND was already becoming meaningless in the face of status-quo development in certain part of the country had already started to find ground among planners and built environmental professionals.

The research I conducted examined a suburban, green field development that identified itself as New Urbanism, that was finished right before LEED ND was released. While there are certainly projects that might better meet LEED ND certification, I chose this example because I felt like it represented the more typical suburban development that happening in the majority of the country. I examined it against each prerequisite and credit to see how it stacked up to the framework. In retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that not only did it not meeting requirements, it was no where close.

Vermillion, NC

New Urbanism on suburban Charlotte, NC. (Image courtesy of Active Rain)

The neighborhood succeeded on issues that were in the developers control, after he chose its overall location. Streets had wide sidewalks and were tree-lined, different housing types were in close distance to community space and playgrounds, and the streets formed a connected grid. Unfortunately it failed on some underlying issues including its greater location and access to community resources, mixed-uses and transportation. This close analysis helped to identify the largest gaps in the framework, and strategies that could be put in place to make LEED-ND a more realistic and necessary choice for developers in the future.

In the next three posts I will focus on each of the largest gaps identified and associated strategies that could make the LEED ND Rating System not just sustainable over time but given a marketable force and therefore preferred by developers and built environment professionals. Hopefully, as USGBC continues to evolve LEED ND, it will take in to account ways to make it more realistically implementable. Concurrently, hopefully planners, designers, engineers and the like will become advocates for measurable standards that could result in consistent quality of place. Only when consumers are given multiple choices in affordable neighborhoods exemplifying sustainable and traditional development will those we have the money and the power abdicate that the market does want walkable, dense, and mixed-use communities.

And after all – this is America – the market reigns.

Erin’s Google+

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